Global digital gateway Google has policy lessons for us

New Delhi has put its weight behind Indian startups, stating that the delisting of apps from Google PlayStore is not permissible.  (HT_PRINT)
New Delhi has put its weight behind Indian startups, stating that the delisting of apps from Google PlayStore is not permissible. (HT_PRINT)

Summary

  • A real escape from Big Tech’s clutches would demand that India innovate its way to digital autonomy.

Google’s recent delisting of 23 Indian apps from its PlayStore for non-compliance with its billing policy underscores its market dominance. After protests erupted and the government signalled its reproach of its action, Google reinstated some of these apps. Central to this conflict lies the Google Play Billing System (GPBS) and is rules that govern Android smartphone apps available at its app store, with the Supreme Court looking into the matter.

It was only after an industry backlash and order from the Competition Commission of India (CCI) in October 2022, calling out its practice as anti-competitive, that Google begrudgingly permitted app developers in India to use alternative billing systems. Its revised PlayStore listing policy offered developers three choices: Adhere to the GPBS, adopt an alternative billing mechanism, or opt for a consumption-only model exempt from service fees. Critics, however, contend that its continued imposition of fees violates the CCI’s directives.

The dispute is over a commercial agreement between Google and users of its app store, and pending legal resolution, Google’s delisting action was within the bounds of law. However, the impacted entities and other stakeholders look poised to weaponize it for political and policy discourse. Notably, many of these entities have benefited from their presence on the app store. Consider startup pitches for funding that include boasts of PlayStore app downloads.

If India’s technology sector is concerned about such market dominance, with a foreign company acting as an app gateway to a huge majority of smartphone users, it must wake up to the reality of 21st century digital warfare, both economic and geopolitical.

There is a lesson in this for policymakers. While India lagged the West on Web1 and Web2, it cannot afford to miss Web3 developments and the conversation on artificial intelligence (AI). If India does not acquire a seat at the global table to pursue its strategic interests, it will lose commercial opportunities in these spheres and also find Western narratives harder to counter when need be.

As for the Google PlayStore fiasco, India has limited options. One option is stronger government intervention in favour of domestic businesses. However, such moves risk adverse implications to diplomatic and trade negotiations, as reciprocity is a factor. New Delhi has put its weight behind Indian startups, stating that the delisting of apps from Google PlayStore is not permissible. Further, the Centre has initiated a meeting between Google and the affected startups to address this dispute. However, the central challenge remains: Can the government compel tech giants like Google to engage in meaningful dialogue without infringing their contractual rights, given that India is already seen as weak in legal contractual enforcement?

Another option involves urging the CCI to conduct a thorough investigation. It’s crucial to recognize, though, that tech giants like Google have weathered hefty penalties, running in hundreds of millions of dollars, in various countries without a significant impact on their earnings or behaviour. This serves as another lesson for our regulators. Penalties don’t suffice. Ludicrously, lawyer fees often exceed the actual penalties.

Much can be done to reduce dependence on foreign Big Tech firms. A longer-term solution entails using an India-first digital app store ecosystem. In 2023, the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), an autonomous body under the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY), launched mSeva, a platform aimed at securing the Indian digital ecosystem from the effects of Android dominance. Expectations arose of a mandate for the pre-installation of this local app store on all Android devices sold in India. Despite this being an indigenous platform, it has not attracted too many app developers. They have continued to rely heavily on Google App Store, instead of mSeva. Other recent initiatives that aim to enhance app-store competition, such as Walmart-owned PhonePe’s Indus Appstore, have not changed that scenario either.

While commercial laws and competition rules are vital to shape the digital economy, they alone are not sufficient to counter the dominance of global Big Tech giants. For India to safeguard its digital sovereignty, it must invest substantially in nurturing its entrepreneurs and fostering innovation in emerging fields of technology. Only by channelling resources into these sectors and actively participating in global discussions on evolving regulations can India assert its influence and shape the trajectory of technological development on a global scale.

A true transformation and the emergence of globally competitive entities of Indian origin necessitate a robust foundation built on education, research and development. It will take investments in an education system that can cultivate and sharpen students’ faculties of critical thinking and creativity, both key to technological prowess, for India to position itself as a formidable force in the global digital landscape.

In a rapidly evolving digital environment, the ability to commercialize and leverage intellectual property is paramount. India must not remain a provider of outsourced grunge-work to the world, by and large, but needs to instead cultivate an ecosystem that encourages the development and protection of intellectual property. If we must act to protect our digital interests, we have to get beyond cyber-coolie roles.

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